Is Consensus Always The Way To Go?

Leading a diverse team with many different viewpoints and perspectives can be very challenging for any leader. We know the best decisions usually involve some type of compromise or consensus opinion, but is that always the soundest way to lead? Are there times when leaders might not be able to use a consensus vote or even deliberately avoid a consensus tally? In fact, are certain decisions made more effectively without consensus? The answer is most definitely “yes” and here are some reasons why and ways to go about leading when a leader decides against consensus.

 Consensus or Not

We need to make a quick decision: In the workplace, it is sometimes necessary to respond quickly. We might need to switch around certain tasks for our teams or move in a different direction fairly quickly to avoid a catastrophe, so getting a consensus is not practical. We might wish we could poll everyone, but that won’t work. Time is of the essence.

The decision is based on confidential information: Although we believe in transparency, sometimes we have confidential facts that may impact a choice. Working with a client recently, the senior leadership decided to launch a new performance appraisal system that would only be around for one year. HR professionals were not brought into the decision making because they did not know a merger was about to happen.

The decision will have low impact on the team: Sometimes leaders need to act decisively about a choice that might affect some team members but must be made. In one organization I partnered, the team leader needed to reschedule a series of meetings and presentations for the team. Although various individuals might have preferred input to the changes, it was not critical for a consensus vote. 

We strongly believe in a controversial vision: A leader may want to passionately launch an initiative that they know may face roadblocks from their team. With that in mind, a leader must be able to persuade their team members to take a chance on a particular project or dream. Although there will be no voting, it is essential to explain why we want to journey down a particular path. We need to listen to the discussion, questions and concerns, but not necessarily have a consensus of moving forward.

In all these situations a leader will only be successful if they communicate clearly and make their case sufficiently. Although we may not ask for a consensus, we owe it to our team to be honest and ethical. Whenever possible eliciting buy-in from our teams is the way to go for the most success.

What situations have you been in that you were unable to get a consensus? What are your thoughts on the need for consensus?

14 thoughts on “Is Consensus Always The Way To Go?

  1. Hi, Terri – great post!

    You are striking at the heart of a revered and incorrect assumption: Everyone has to be “on board” for a direction to be successful.

    Experience tells us what you are saying … every situation does not require consensus. In real life, this is a somewhat overvalued quality. Many things are done without consensus, including most of our social and cultural progress.

    I have seen some teams declare “consensus”, when they should be saying “group think” or “Loudest voice wins”.

    Thanks for sharing with us:)


  2. Thanks John for sharing your comments about consensus being an “incorrect assumption”. You are so right that teams oftentimes think they are being asked for input, but it might not be what is actually taking place. Consensus is just not practical all the time. Interesting thoughts about social and cultural progress. Would love to hear more. I so appreciate your additions to my post. Thanks again.

  3. Great article,

    I would like to add one more reason to decide without consensus:
    When there is only one solution to a problem.

    Team discussion to create consensus is only value adding when there are multiple real options in the table. If there is only one solution, informing the team about the decision should suffice.

    BR, Thijs

  4. Thanks Thijs for stopping by and reading my blog! I agree with you that when a leader has only one way to go with a decision and there are no other options available, consensus is unnecessary. The reality in the workplace is that happens frequently. Thanks again! Terri

  5. I have found that lack of spoken and unspoken consensus in a team often represents a lack of focus, commitment and/or performance of the team.

    On the other side of the coin, leaders do not lead (or serve) by “following” the dictates of the vote. Leaders lead the way because they see and know what must be done. A leader that cannot lead without a call for votes should/must be replaced immediately.

  6. Nice outlay of options.

    There is something that goes beyond Consensus. We call it Concordance. I like to think about three dimensions when thinking about critical decisions: inclusion, control and openness.

    Those most affected by the decision and those making the decision in the process? Who knows and who cares. (inclusion)

    All members have equal voting power, and veto power on every decision. Everyone must agree with the final decision before it is final. Control)

    No witholding. Not to say something relevant is as much a violation as is lying. (Openness)

    Teams can’t do this out of the box. Like any complicated skill it takes time and practice. If you want to move to High Performance, Concordance is a must have skill set on teams.

  7. Terri!
    Sheesh, I have been looking for this since I read your post over two hours ago!

    I had to share this with you!
    “When we are debating an issue, loyalty means giving me your honest opinion, whether you think I’ll like it or not. Disagreement, at this state, stimulates me. But once a decision is made, the debate ends. From that point on, loyalty means executing the decision as if it were your own.”
    — General Colin Powell

  8. What an awesome quote Amber-Lee! It is a perfect addition to my post. It is so true that open and respectful disagreement is critical for successful end results. But, once a decision is reached, it is incumbent upon the team members to support the choice. And that can sometimes be challenging for some people. That’s where strong leadership comes in and pulls the team together and energizes everyone with the path forward. Thanks again for your insightful comments!

  9. Thank you so much, Robert, for offering to share your thoughts about the skill of concordance! All three have an important place in decision-making and can greatly impact the outcome of a team’s trajectory. I do believe, as you do, team members must have buy-in and be encouraged to share their viewpoints. Otherwise, group think does result. Good leaders can navigate through this process successfully to make sure the best solution is reached.Thanks again for stopping by and commenting!

  10. You are most definitely right about the need for substantial feedback,Johann! Without input from team members, a leader has little chance of being successful. They just don’t want to be paralyzed when the feedback becomes too divergent and a consensus cannot be reached. That is the real test of a great leader. Thanks so much for your insights!

  11. Terri,

    This is an important conversation. Consensus cannot always be achieved. In competitive situations, a reasonable act to move forward to counter, leapfrog, and keep ahead will be necessary. If we wait for everyone to agree, we could miss the competitive and market opportunity.

    Listening quickly and thoroughly, digesting what we heard into actionable steps, and being able to adjust after the decisiion are critical skills we need to have as leaders. It also is to admit mistakes and learn from them.

    Thanks! Jon

  12. It is so true, Jon, that in this fast-paced business world, it may be disastrous to wait for a consensus. And being able to listen effectively and act decisively is essential for today’s leaders. Additionally, leaders with agility will have the edge in our constantly changing world.It can be challenging to admit we chose the wrong path, but hopefully pivot to face down another road quickly. As always, I so value your insights and comments.Thanks Jon! Terri

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